Awash in fake news and so-called alternative facts, it’s hard to know who and what to believe. I can’t even trust me. You probably shouldn’t trust you. We are easily fooled and once we think we know something, we tend to ignore anything that says we’re wrong. Thankfully, there are steps we can take to make ourselves a bit more trustworthy.
The first safeguard is awareness of how easily we are fooled. We tend to believe ideas that are easy to “get,” and it’s easier for us to grasp an idea if it’s written in an easy-to-read font. A survey of New York Times readers found that just changing the typeface can make a story more believable. We’re also more likely to believe a lie if it’s told by someone we recognize—even if they don’t know what they’re talking about--because we trust people we feel are familiar, which is why so many products use celebrity spokespeople.
This familiarity effect also applies to our friends. A study just released found that our trust in a social media story depends on whether we trust the person sharing more than who produced the article—or even whether it’s produced by a real news organization or a fake one. In fact, we’re more likely to believe a fake news source shared by a trusted friend than a reputable news source shared by a stranger.
We are also easily fooled by pictures. When Slate.com showed fake photos of fake events, half the site’s viewers said they “remembered” the fake events actually happening. Our memories can be manipulated because we tend to mistakenly think of our memories as a rough transcript of life. Our memory is more like a dream in which we make meaning out of flickers of smells, sounds, and sights we think we recall.
Millions of dollars are spent on fooling us. Advertising and marketing are examples, but there are those who actually seek to promote ignorance rather than products. There is even a field of study, called agnotology, of deliberate, deceitful spread of ignorance and confusion.
The folks who spread ignorance on purpose like to use the Internet because online we think of ourselves as experts—most of us think we know more than the average person and we use online information as a substitute for our own knowledge--and that makes us easy prey. The problem is made worse by our tendency to interpret any new information as supporting what we already think is true. We tend to have physical and virtual neighborhoods filled mostly with people a lot like us, so we hear things we agree with. The more we hear it, the more we think it’s true, and we start to think our opinions are common sense that “everybody knows.”
Perhaps the best way to minimize getting fooled is staying curious. More curious, rather than educated, people hear new information in a more balanced way. Research shows that people with the most education, best math skills, and strongest tendencies to think deeply about their beliefs are most likely to reject information that contradicts their views. One large study found that the more science liberals and conservatives know, the more polarized they are on whether climate change and fracking are risks to humans. The study also found that people—both liberals and conservatives--with greater curiosity about science were more accepting of facts that contradicted their beliefs.
When we’re curious, we’re eager for new information, more willing to hearing from and about people who are not like us, and more likely to read news sources we don’t normally read. When we’re curious, we tend to fact-check and explore more, going beyond our first impressions. Curiosity enables us to question ourselves more and to avoid clinging to “alternative facts” because we don’t want to admit we’re wrong. All of which has the happy result of making us more trustworthy.